During my stay in the Pittsburgh I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with all kinds of people. However, what stands out for me in particular is those with young Americans in their early twenties. They represent what America will look like tomorrow, and many of them are not very happy about what it looks like today. What follows are anonymized excerpts of various conversations, not exclusively, but predominantly with young adults, some of these have been slightly altered for the sake of readability.
I was standing near the front of a fairly crowded bus. We were waiting for it to depart: several people still needed to pay before exiting the vehicle.
“That’s taking a while,” I murmured.
“Damn, I just want to go home you know”, a middle-aged man standing next to me said. “They can just have their cash ready when they want to exit. They’re delaying all these people this way.”
“It’s not a very efficient system: paying cash, where I come from we use cards for that.”
“Where do you come from?”
“Oh wow, a friend of mine lived there for sometime, in Amsterdam I think.”
“Cool, then he probably knows the public transport infrastructure is better over there.”
“Sure, sure, better then here. There’s lots of things that could be improved in the United States.” He hesitated and continued: “but don’t misunderstand me: I am a proud American. It’s not a perfect country, but people keep coming here: just like you came to Pittsburgh, so we must be doing something right, right?”
I nodded in silent agreement.
“So, I’ve noticed that in the United States the gap between rich and poor is large,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right,” she replied.
“So, in Western Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, that gap tends to be a lot smaller: people are in some sense more equal, certainly in terms of purchasing power. We say `the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden'”
“Right, that’s the way it is supposed to work here. However, it really doesn’t work that way since rich people get huge tax cuts. I mean: Warren Buffet even suggested imposing more tax on his own socio-economic group: the rich.”
“But, the American economic system does encourage more risk-taking and appears to yield more innovation then the European one, right?”
“Right, but I still prefer a welfare state, like those in Europe or Canada.”
I was having a conversation with a group of people.
“So, I am trying to understand how it works here: are conservatives mostly older people and liberals mostly younger people?”
“More or less, the people in the bigger cities: the densely populated areas near the coasts, are generally more liberal, and most young people that are conservative are rich kids,” a girl replied.
“Yes, like: kids with very rich parents, if one thing is true in America it’s that being rich will make you richer,” a boy added.
“That seems perverse. So, how does it work with tuition, that’s supposedly high here, right?”, I continued.
“For Carnegie Mellon it is about forty-three thousand dollars per year, but it varies depending on the school.”
“What, seriously?”, I wasn’t really expecting it to be that high.
“So, what is it in the Netherlands?”
“If I’d tell you that you’d go crazy”, I smiled.
“So, then, what was the American fight for independence really about?”, I asked.
“Well, don’t misunderstand: the American revolution was about a bunch of rich white guys on one side of the ocean that were unhappy about the unfair levied taxes imposed on them by some rich white guys on the other side of that same ocean: the British.”
“One of the things I’ve found quite disappointing here in the United States is the emphasis on a person’s ethnic heritage.” I paused and pondered if I should broach the subject further, “statistics presented in the media are often about race: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and all combinations thereof. I mean: I personally don’t think that should matter at all.”
She smiled, “race shouldn’t matter: I agree, but it is an historically very sensitive issue here in the United States.”
I continued: “As an example, I’ve seen a lot of non-white people working menial jobs. Is my observation incorrect or is this really true?”
“It’s true, it’s true. It’s not just race though, it’s more socio-cultural,” she paused and frowned. “And you know what’s even worse? Say someone manages to get out of that situation, for example: a black female, she then gets stereotyped as the ‘strong black woman'”
“So, what do you think occupy Wall Street is all about?”, I asked.
“I think what it boils down to is getting money out of politics.”
“Yes, in the United States when you run for president you need money: lots of money.” He paused briefly, then continued: “so, most of that money is provided by companies. They basically throw their weight behind any candidate who best serves their interest.”
“And you also have a two party system, right?”
“Right, you can run either for the democrats or republicans, there’s really no other practical way to win an election.”
“So, to recap: would you say it’s basically about reducing the indirect political power and influence of large and rich corporations?”
“That’s exactly it.”
“Have you followed the occupy Wall Street movement?”, he asked.
“Yes, somewhat, someone told me about it, but enlighten me: what is your view on what that’s really about?”, I replied.
“That’s indeed somewhat unclear to many people. So, there are a lot of important issues that the occupy movement raised, like: the greed of wall street, the influence of corporations, etcetera.” he said.
“However”, continuing, “there’s one issue at the center of it all.”
“And what might that be?”, I asked.
“Young versus old”, he replied with confidence. “Look: the young generation is tired of the older generation trying to dominate and regulate everything in this country.”
He hesitated for a second. “Don’t misunderstand me, I think this is a great nation.”
“I’ve heard that before: that belief seems like a very common American trait”, I interrupted. “Where does that actually come from?”
“I think we’re instilled with it from a young age onwards,” he looked briefly up at a friend for confirmation while rubbing his hands to battle the cold breeze.
“Many people think ‘frak it’ and then ‘flee’ to Canada or Europe,” he continued. “But if everyone with progressive ideas does that: only the conservative ones will remain. There’s already too much emphasis on tradition and that’ll only make it worse”
“You should come to Europe”, I said, “Just for a while to see what it’s like, I mean: it’s not perfect over there, but it would give you a better feeling of the differences.”
“No system is perfect.” He smiled.